Battle for the living room…Apple, Microsoft, Sony and Roku have sharpened their swords, so look out!

The battle for the living room is, once again, heating up. The question, however, is this: does joe and jane consumer really want it? 

For the next battle, we have Microsoft’s XBOX One, Sony’s PS4, Roku, Apple TV and a host of other boxes from Western Digital, Cisco and others. In addition, there’s a slew of cheap (under $100) Android based gaming consoles that, because they are Android, will likely also offer other services in addition to the gaming aspect.

Apple it readying a new release of iOS, iOS 7, that will also run on the Apple TV. iTunes Radio will be a feature of the update to Apple TV as will the new AirPlay. You will be able to stream your iPhones screen and audio to your HD TV via Apple TV. A sly way to give Apple TV yet even more reason to live.

Roku has introduced new versions of its hockey puck player and added gaming in the mix.

Microsoft, of course, has the XBOX One. The One has a ton of entertainment features and on line video features. With the XBOX Video and Music store readily available, plus agreements from Comcast, Warner and Verizon, the XBOX One can replace your cable box.  The Blu-Ray drive will allow the XBOX to play all of those discs in addition to DVD. At $499, it is the most expensive option out there.

Sony, of course, has its PS4. The PS4 is very much like the XBOX One in its feature list, but does not have quite as much to offer in the online arena and there are no deals with cable companies to offer cable programming via the console. What they do have, however, are enough popular services, like HULU and Netflix to keep anyone happy. Plus, the PS4 is $399, less than the XBOX One.

Perhaps the slyest of the sly are those Android based game consoles. I use the term console loosely as some of them look like over sized USB sticks and plug into the TV’s HDMI port.  These things will sport one of the more recent flavors of Android, cost under a hundred bucks and will work with true game controllers. However, since they are Android, that means they will be offered with minimal entertainment choices (perhaps Netflix and/or Hulu) or will be easily hacked to do so. I suspect these little boxes or sticks will gain a lot of traction because of the price and the fact that Android is the most popular phone platform.  And the games…the games are familiar and many, if not most, are free to play. Who wouldn’t want to play Candy Crush Saga or Plants V Zombies on their HDTV?

This will all boil down, however, to one thing: adding one more box to the TV.  Microsoft is betting that its offering will replace two or more other boxes. Same for Sony. Apple just wants its ‘hobby’ to mature. And the others? Those could be the ones that actually make it. Roku is very popular, but still not a household word, yet I think it stands a better chance of succeeding where Microsoft, Sony and even Apple will not. My five year old step son figured out how to use Roku in a matter of minutes. Most of the similar products are just as easy to use. They have to be.

Personally, I am amazed that the public were convinced enough that they needed some kind of video player/recorder and a video game console to the TV. The ease with which people accepted these devices will, surely, not be duplicated.  Even though HDMI is just ONE cable, people now must remember to hit the HDMI source button on the remote to ‘switch’ to that device. If the set has more than one, then that’s a real problem for many, who are easily confused and just want ‘channel up’ or ‘channel down’.  (By that same thought, Microsoft was smart to incorporate the HDMI passthrough for cable boxes.  The IR blaster part, however, could cause other problems.)

We’ll see how this battle plays out. We are in the early stages, so…take cover and keep your eyes open. The battle lines have been drawn.

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Comcast, you win…the cord is no longer cut

A few months ago, we decided to cut the cord and go cable free. We thought that with the variety of over the air stations and the digital sub-channels plus our Netflix, Apple TV and Hulu Plus, we would be set.  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Sooo….

We are watching cable tv. Again.

For awhile, we did fine. But, as time went on, we found our alternatives to be lacking.  Especially Hulu Plus. We watch our programming either on the iPad or that little device known as TELEVISION. We have a Roku and an Apple TV, plus the two Wii’s (possibly the greatest gaming console ever,) two Xbox 360’s and a very dusty, thrown in the back Sony Playstation 3, all of which give us online entertainment. Hulu is available on all of them. Problem is, even with Hulu Plus, you cannot watch everything they offer.  Much of the programming is restricted to COMPUTER viewing only. Now, no television in my house has a true Windows or Mac PC connected to it.  Those days are gone.  And we are not going to huddle around a 20 inch screen just to watch something on Hulu that I WAS PAYING FOR! Oh, the bloody adverts.  Why the hell am I paying to watch adverts? 

Hulu Plus is no bargain.  For the same amount, I can get Netflix. At least they offer WHOLE seasons worth of tv series and a few recent vintage films. And, therein lies my beef with them.

Netflix, where are the freaking new movies?  If I want NEW films, I must pay extra to have a DVD mailed to my house.  What?!  Ya gotta be joking!  No, sadly, they aren’t.  So…Netflix, you are nearly as bad as Hulu.

Which brings me to the Roku. This is a nifty little box that has lots going for it.  Problem is, though, many of the channels I would want to watch are EXTRA. Yup. Ya gotta fork over more bucks.  There are a lot of ‘free’ channels, but ‘free’ as in you didn’t need to buy them from the Roku ‘store’.  And the ones that truly are free, well, they are a hit or miss thing.  Channels like CNet and TWiT are there, which is fantastic, but others show public domain movies…many of which I can or have downloaded-legally-from places like Archive.org.

So, if I add up the channels I MIGHT pay for, plus Hulu and Netflix (and the cost of just Internet access through Comcast) I have pretty much equaled the cost of Internet access plus the tier of cable that I had. I would not save anything plus I would be paying for commercials too.  So, what would be the benefit?  None.  So, Comcast, you win.  We get the crap we want, plus a ton we don’t.

And, for the record, over the air television can be spectacular. The local NBC and CW stations broadcast in 1080i and the others in 720p.  The 1080i stuff, when actual HD content is shown, looks terrific. And our local Fox affiliate carries all Fox Network programming in 720p. Let me tell you, the Fox broadcasts of the NASCAR events look great.  The digital sub-channels are very enjoyable.  The netlets that are available in the Richmond, VA area, for example, include: MeTV, MyTV, Antenna TV, Bounce,The Cool TV and the PBS station carries a variety of programming on two sub-channels that range from BBC news to Al-Jazeera America.  Good stuff and a news perspective that everyone should get.  And, don’t be fooled by Al-Jazeera, it isn’t what you think. At least, the American version isn’t,

Oh yeah, Hulu will start requiring a cable tv subscription for much of its programming, so they definitely will not be an alternative for anyone wanting to cut the cord. No word on when this new requirement will start, but I can imagine it will be sooner rather than later.  I also see it’s subscriber base dwindling down. 

So, the great experiment is dead.  All I have left to say is…Food Network, I sure missed you!

Thinking about cutting the cord? Do it with a Roku

For quite sometime now, I’ve been displeased with Comcast’s service.  Unfortunately, there really isn’t much out there in the way of cable TV service that is any better. Quite the opposite, I have heard many people complain about Verizon, Dish, EchoStar and other such services. So, given our choices, we have decided to just cut the cord. Period.

However, we do enjoy quite a few shows that are not on over the air broadcast television.  What to do.

Well, actually, there’s plenty of options out there. Since we would keep the Comcast High Speed internet service, we had one major option.  Internet TV.  Dad’s are another.  But, I don’t want to buy a bunch of DVD’s, especially for things like Diner’s, Drive In’s and Dives.

I started looking at the various set top boxes (didn’t want to put a computer on every television in the house.) I immediately ruled out Apple’s Apple TV device, even though I am a fan of the device.  I pretty much forces you to buy TV shows through iTunes. Of course, it does have Netflix, but so does the Wii.  Big deal.

Western Digital has a nifty device, but it is mostly a ‘bring it yourself’ type of device where you supply the content.

Boxee Box, while fitting the bill, was just too costly. At nearly $180, I didn’t think it was really worth the money, considering you have to pay for many of the services (like Netflix and Hulu Plus) anyway.

Enter Roku.  Roku sells several boxes, ranging from $49 to $99.  The box I settled on was $79.  The tiny little box has composite and HDMI video and audio outputs. And packs a punch.  It is just slightly smaller than the Apple TV and has a somewhat more sophisticated remote control. 

Setup was spotty. No, actually, it was a pain in the ass.  Physical setup was a snap: plug in the cables and that’s it. No, the software setup was a pain. You NEED a credit card or PayPal just to activate the damn thing. While you don’t get charged, they do check the validity of the card. Without this vital step, you bought yourself a tiny little brick.

Once activated and your Roku account is all set, you can add channels to the device. This part was somewhat easier, but, as with anything, your mileage may vary.  Most of the channels will require some kind of payment, but they are worth the nickel and diming you will get. There are also apps available, though most are games.  And, some of those games require Roku TV game remote.

There are, literally, hundreds of channels to add. Some free, some free to add and others are paid channels. You have to be careful, some of them say they free, but, they are not. Some are free to add and then invoke a use tax, so to speak, saying that the preview channel is set to expire and you need to pony up the money to keep on trucking.

Most of the channel want you to ‘tie’ the channel to your device. You are given a URL on the ROKU, you go to the computer and type the URL in and, viola! You’ve got programming.

The quality of the video will, of course, vary with the source, but, when true HD video is playing, man…you realize just how good you have it.  Audio quality was hard to tell as we are using the television’s built in speakers.  Overall, it sounded great.

At $79, the device is well worth the money. I don’t know that I would buy the more expensive version as the only apparent difference is the remote.

Our experiment with cutting the cord is off to a strong start.The different service on the Roku make it easier to do this, but time will tell.  Now, we need some kind of DVR and then life would truly be great.

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